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A matter of choices

 
At one point in his inaugural speech after taking the oath of office, Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards stated the obvious: "Budgeting is a matter of making choices."
Sometimes, the obvious is worth stating plainly. That’s especially true when the choices will be framed by a 2011-12 budget gap projected to be as big as $50 million.
 
The cause of this shortfall is no mystery. Simply put, the city is-indeed, has been for some time-spending more money than it takes in. This year, options used in the past, such as drawing on reserves and obtaining state aid spin-ups, will not do the trick.
 
But even if such budget cards could be played, they would simply delay the inevitable. The structural problems that created the gap must be addressed directly.
 
Already, some city employees are mounting protests against possible workforce cuts. But with personnel costs accounting for roughly two-thirds of the city’s budget, and pension and health care expenses rising rapidly, it’s not realistic to think all jobs can be saved.
 
And remember, 73 cents of every dollar in property tax revenue automatically goes to the Rochester City School District. The city is obligated to maintain $119 million in school funding.
 
What about raising taxes? The mayor has been careful not to rule out anything, but as he’s noted, city residents already have a heavy tax burden. Moreover, state law limits how much the city can raise in property levies-and that limit still would leave it with a sizable deficit.
 
So we’re back to the choices to be made. As Mr. Richards put it, "Government budgets are not just numbers and money; they are expressions of philosophy and values."
 
The next month of budget deliberations easily could devolve into a battle of competing interests. But the mayor asked for this process to be something more: "It will need to be more than a yelling contest, or declarations that one claim on the budget is more righteous than another. … We are each responsible for our impact on the whole and cannot avoid it."

In other words, those with a stake in the city need to have a calm, deliberate discussion of what needs and values should shape the hard task of balancing the budget. This is not the way it’s usually done, which, of course, is the root of the problem.

4/22/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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